15.1.08

The Elephant's Memory

When I was younger, so much younger than today ... the circus came to town. It was (maybe) the Wrigley Brothers Circus, and among their animals was an elephant called (I think) Rajah. This unfortunate beast had plucked from roadside vegetation enough of the local shrub known by us as Toot - that is, tutu or coriaria arborea - to cause its death. I imagine it extending its trunk through the bars of its trailer-borne cage as the circus trucks laboured up one of the steep, dusty, bush-flanked roads of the King Country on their way to Ohakune. The death of Rajah was a sensation in our town and crowds attended his burial at the old showgrounds at the Junction, just over the other side of the Main Trunk Line, where the road goes on up into Tongariro National Park and climbs the mountain, Ruapehu. I am unsure if I was at the actual funeral but have a very clear memory of the burial mound itself, a great pile of bulldozed yellow-brown dirt with a tiny bunch of flowers placed absurdly, poignantly, at the top. Anyway. Sometime in the 1970s, at a house in Wellington, I said to the room that there was an elephant buried at the Junction in Ohakune. A well known poet who was there seized upon this remark and incorporated it into a longish poem he was writing at the time. I didn't think he had a right to the story but was too much in awe of him to say anything. When I heard him read the poem at Downstage Theatre, I cringed when that line came out verbatim; and was relieved to find it dropped from the published version of the poem. So far so neurotic ... Later that same decade I discovered that the painter, Philip Clairmont, had also witnessed the elephant's burial. He was staying, with his mother, at the house of the local doctor, one Graeme Shanks. When I came to write my book on Phil's life and work, I put in a short account of the elephant's grave and also a rather longer version of a peculiar interview I conducted with Dr Shanks in his Christchurch home. Recently, that is, a couple of weeks ago, a friend wrote to me from Auckland saying she had been at a dinner party where the subject somehow came up. It turns out that, in the early 1960s, the elephant's bones were disinterred from their great pit and taken up to the university, where they became the property of the biology department and may even be on display in their museum. My friend gave me the source of this story and suggested I write to him for further details. He is someone I haven't met but did correspond with on another matter a couple of years ago. So I dropped him a line the other day ... the response came yesterday morning: Yes I do know most of what there is to be known about the Ohakune elephant. However it's a story I intend to use in a book of anecdotes I have in preparation and so you'll understand that at this stage I'm reluctant to pass it on to someone else ... Now my question is: why did this make me feel so bad? I thought I was immune to such disappointments. And yet, while I went about my usual occupations, all day there was an underlying feeling of desolation - not too strong a word. As if something had been taken from me. It wasn't that I wanted to write anything more about the elephant, just that I would have liked a bit more information. I don't know what year it was, only that it must have been before 1962, because that's when we left that town. I'm not sure if I have recalled the name, Rajah, correctly. How long between burial and disinterment? And so on. Another question: why should any of this matter? When the poet took my remark and put it in his poem, I was affronted because I felt the story belonged to me, not him. Now, I seem to be affronted because someone else has said the story belongs to him, not me. Do these stories belong to anyone exclusively or are they the property of a community? I remember the night that Phil and I discovered we had that unusual childhood experience in common. It was a perhaps minor coincidence that had a big effect: without that elusive shared memory, I'm not sure that I would have felt the impetus to take on the arduous and intimidating task of trying to write his life. I might not have felt the degree of fragile entitlement I did feel. Why won't this fellow tell me what he knows? It is an unthought consequence of his refusal that now I am resolved to find out all I can. Why? Not sure. Don't really know. For the elephant's memory ...

3 comments:

Ashley said...

I would say that things like this do belong to a community and the fellow hoarding his notes is outside the community. I don't see how any art can get created without stories like this one about the elephant, trickling down, rivulets, dispersed haphazardly to whoever cares enough to pay attention. This man is foolish if he thinks he now owns the story, simply because he won't share what he knows.

Moonmidwife said...

I think stories like this are community property and I also feel a little aggrieved about that person not sharing with you. I have read various accounts of Rajah's death and this is like the next episode being with-held from me. Its not my story, but its a NZ story and as I first heard it in your writings, I also associate it with you and oddly with Clairmont

Martin Edmond said...

yes it is frustrating. we have to wait until his book comes out to know what he knows. have been talking to circus historians on both sides of the Tasman - Rajah was usually a lion's not an elephant's name and no-one knows anything about a circus called Wrigley Bros. It may have been a misreading (by DOC!) of Ridgeways. an elephant called Sally, from Bullen's Circus, died somewhere in the North Island in 1960 after drinking water from a drum in which weed killer had previously been stored ... is this the Ohakune elephant?